Why it’s best to face up to your re­grets


Sunday Herald Sun - Body and Soul - - LIFESTYLE -

Un­til re­cently, I had a “non je ne re­grette rien” at­ti­tude to life. Yes, I’d taken risks and made mis­takes.

But in­stead of dwelling on them, I had held onto the be­lief that it’s point­less to cry over spilt milk.

But in the past few months, I’ve be­come fix­ated with the past: things I’ve done and wish I hadn’t, things I haven’t done but wish I had. They range from what is ap­par­ently peo­ple’s most com­mon re­gret – I wish I’d cho­sen a dif­fer­ent ca­reer path – to the more spe­cific.

I wish I hadn’t quit my se­cure teach­ing job for the com­pet­i­tive world of jour­nal­ism. I wish I hadn’t wasted so much time wor­ry­ing about triv­ial things. I won­dered whether it was my first preg­nancy, with its high lev­els of hor­mones, that was do­ing some­thing to my brain.

Then again, per­haps this fix­a­tion on “what if” is a symp­tom of age­ing. I’m 39 and an ex­is­ten­tial cri­sis around the 40-year mark is not un­usual.

I’ve read that, un­til 40, most peo­ple as­sume pos­si­bil­ity is un­lim­ited. If a ca­reer doesn’t work out, there’s time to re­train for an­other. If a re­la­tion­ship ends, an­other will come along.

But at 40ish, big dreams seem a bit less achiev­able. So is it bet­ter to deny the ex­is­tence of re­grets or is it health­ier to face up to them?


In the past, the ad­vice was to get over re­grets and move on. But psy­chol­o­gists have found that our self-per­cep­tions are largely de­ter­mined by how we feel about the past and what we ex­pect for our fu­ture. Stud­ies have shown that ru­mi­nat­ing on paths not taken is emo­tion­ally cor­ro­sive, but also that ac­knowl­edg­ing re­grets, though painful, can serve an im­por­tant pur­pose.

Caro­line Adams Miller, a per­for­mance coach and co-author of Cre­at­ing Your Best Life (Ster­ling), says as one ages, it is nor­mal for re­grets to mul­ti­ply. The im­por­tant thing is whether a per­son uses their re­grets to their ad­van­tage or ends up be­ing con­sumed by them.

“We be­gin to cre­ate re­grets around the age of 19 or 20, ac­cord­ing to the re­search,” she says. “Be­cause this is when we be­gin to choose things like pro­fes­sions and life part­ners.

“Mak­ing one choice means we could be giv­ing up other op­tions. We ac­crue re­grets as we age, but peo­ple han­dle them in dif­fer­ent ways. If you pile up re­grets about roads not taken, and you do noth­ing about it, you will have less well­be­ing than if you choose to al­ter your life.”

Ex­perts be­lieve avoid­ing re­grets can re­sult in car­ry­ing them as de­struc­tive bag­gage and “act­ing out” – hav­ing an af­fair, for in­stance.


In­sist­ing you have no re­grets can be a form of de­nial and a de­fence mech­a­nism – al­most as if it is too fright­en­ing to look back with hon­esty. It was eas­ier to tell my­self ev­ery­thing hap­pens for a rea­son than to take re­spon­si­bil­ity for my life.

Adams Miller ad­vises clients to as­sess their re­grets and de­cide to live with them and “make mean­ing” of the choices or use them to set goals.

Pauline Kent, a PR di­rec­tor, says she has spo­ken to many women who re­gret the time they haven’t spent with their chil­dren.

The mother of four says: “I had chil­dren in my 30s be­cause I wanted a ca­reer. Now I think I should down­size, worry less and en­joy more.”

In my own life, it was by con­sid­er­ing “re­grets in ad­vance” last year that I made changes.

Al­though I was rel­a­tively happy sin­gle, I fast-for­warded to my mid-40s. I asked my­self whether I would re­gret not try­ing to set­tle down with a good man (rather than con­tin­u­ing to wait for Mr Per­fect) and have chil­dren.

The an­swer was a re­sound­ing yes. It wasn’t quite the fairy­tale I had imag­ined, but de­spite those lit­tle re­grets I men­tioned ear­lier, I do count my bless­ings more than I ever did be­fore.

If I hadn’t thought about “pos­si­ble fu­ture re­grets in ad­vance”, I’d prob­a­bly still be wait­ing for fate to trans­form my life for me.

Fac­ing up to re­grets is painful. But the sooner they’re ac­knowl­edged, the sooner you can make peace with them and try to live with­out them.

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